The Magazine

Reconstructing Iraq

With the Marines in the south and the 101st Airborne in the north.

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By MAX BOOT
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I WENT TO IRAQ in August, the day after a bomb had ripped through the United Nations compound in Baghdad, killing 23 people including the U.N. special envoy. I came home the day after another massive car bomb exploded at a mosque in Najaf, taking more than 95 lives including that of a leading cleric. Yet I returned more optimistic than when I went.

Understandably, these attacks have caused apprehension, verging on panic, among U.S.-based commentators and politicians. A chorus of critics is already attacking the Bush administration for losing Iraq. During my trip I, too, saw plenty of room for improvement, especially by the civilian-run Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. For that matter, I was almost a casualty of a roadside bomb myself. Nevertheless, after 10 days traveling with soldiers and Marines in both the north and south, I am encouraged by the resourcefulness of our troops and struck by how different things look when seen firsthand. From afar, chaos seems to reign in Iraq; up close, distinct signs of progress emerge.

Air travel isn't one of the more positive signs. There still is no commercial air service to Iraq. I went in with Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and a Marine veteran of Vietnam, on a Marine Lear jet from Kuwait to Al Kut in central Iraq. From there, an old CH-46 helicopter whisked us to the 1st Marine Division headquarters at Camp Babylon. Yes, that Babylon. The former home of Nebuchadnezzar now houses rulers clad in khaki camouflage.

The headquarters of the 1st Marine Division was on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein's numerous palaces. A guest house had been turned into a Combat Operations Center where officers and enlisted personnel sat at laptop computers monitoring everything from enemy attacks to electricity flows. A tent city around the building was full to overflowing when we arrived. The Marines were in the process of transitioning out, while Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Spaniards, and numerous other coalition troops had already arrived to take their place. The formal handoff to the coalition forces occurred on September 3, except in Najaf, where the recent bombing has delayed it.

For Marines who went through the war sleeping in the dirt and eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), life at Camp Babylon had gotten relatively civilized by the end of their tour. Most of the tents had cots and air conditioning, "head" calls could be taken in the privacy of a port-o-potty, and food came from a "chow hall" run by Indian contract employees. Things will be positively luxurious for the allied troops, who are having built for them, at U.S. expense, air-conditioned shower and laundry facilities. The food wasn't bad--we had lobster my first night and excellent cakes--but everyone from buck private to three-star general waited in a long line before getting fed.

From here the 1st Marine Division directed battalions that ran all of south-central Iraq--up to 11 million people in the Shiite heartland. Major General James Mattis laughingly called it the Blue Diamond Republic of Iraq, after the 1st Division's nickname. If so, he was president of the republic, or, more accurately, its benevolent dictator. Mattis is a legend inside the Marine Corps, having led the Marines into both Afghanistan and Iraq. He was so hell-bent on reaching Baghdad that he fired one of his brigade commanders for not going fast enough. It was his men who toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad on April 9, signaling the end of the war.

Relatively short and trim, with a silver crewcut and owlish spectacles, Mattis doesn't look particularly imposing. But when he opens his mouth it becomes apparent that he's cut from the George S. Patton mold. Funny, blunt, erudite, inspiring, and profane, he takes no guff and tolerates no inefficiency. At nightly briefings with his staff, he dissected PowerPoint presentations with laser-like questions that got to the heart of every problem. The issues he dealt with were more appropriate to an imperial proconsul than to a general: how to combat Islamic extremists, win over ordinary people, distribute fuel, enforce law and order, and a thousand other matters. Mattis was not the least bit fazed by the challenge.

And he had made substantial progress. While Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle were still plagued by anti-American terrorism, life in the Blue Diamond Republic was pretty calm. It might not seem that way in the wake of the August 29 car bombing in Najaf. But despite that event, a substantial degree of normality had returned to Najaf and neighboring towns. The streets I saw were bustling, and the Marines enjoyed excellent relations with local leaders.